She didn’t know what her grandmother was trying to tell her about this town until the warrior who’d saved her stepped out from the building. Another man, a few inches shorter, trailed behind him. The man at her warrior’s back had his face painted white with brown buffalos on his cheeks, meanwhile his was painted black. Two red stripes cut sharp angles from his eyes to his jawline. Another red mark went across his brow with white dots placed above it.
They came down to stand in a small courtyard at the base of the stairs as if they were waiting for someone else to join them.
Others filed in from all directions until they formed a small army of men. Most of them were heavily armed with blowguns, atlatls, or spears. A few with those vicious war clubs.
But not her warrior. His sole weapons were a simple bow and a short knife that was tucked into his boot.
"They’ll be here soon," the shorter man said.
Her warrior nodded. Dressed in a very thin black buckskin jacket and pants, he wore no shirt beneath it. And well he shouldn’t, given how chiseled and rigidly defined his muscles were. The front of his long black hair was pulled back to the crown of his head, where it was held by a thick leather cord, the ends of which were attached to a black and white feather.
He wore the bow crossed over his back, and a small quiver of arrows at his waist. Even though he was surrounded by fierce warriors, he stood out. Not just because he was the tallest, but because of the way he watched those around him. As if he expected an attack at any moment.
And who could blame him? Contempt bled out of the expressions of the others whenever they glanced in his direction. Why did they hate him so? Was he so evil that they couldn’t stand to look at him?
Turning, he spoke to the man beside him with short, rapid hand gestures that made no sense to her whatsoever.
The man arched a brow. "Why would you think that?"
Her warrior shrugged.
Suddenly, silence fell over the gathered warriors as the doors opened. Moving with slow, deliberate strides, four older men who were dressed in the cloaks of priests descended from the building. Each of them had a different feathered headdress and mask. One appeared to be a deer, complete with antlers. Another was a white buffalo, followed by a black bear, and lastly a gray wolf. They also carried ornate feathered fans.
The oldest began speaking in a language she couldn’t understand. But after a second, the words became clear.
"It has been decided and agreed upon. For his bravery against the mighty boar and for saving his brother’s life, Coyote will lead us after the death of our chief, his father. Word has been sent to the Deer clan that we will welcome their strongest daughter to be his wife. So let it be done and may we grow even more prosperous under the leadership of Coyote and his bride, Butterfly!"
Kateri heard those words, but it was the expression on her warrior’s face that held her real attention. He looked as if someone had just kicked him in the stomach.
The man with him started forward, but her warrior grabbed his arm and shook his head sternly.
"They should know the truth," his friend said in a fierce whisper.
"They don’t c-c-c-care." His stutter stunned her. She’d have never expected that from a man so predacious.
"It’s not right! You saved Coyote. How can he take credit when you’re the one who was almost killed defending him and his stupidity? But for you, he’d be dead now."
A tic worked in her warrior’s jaw as he began to sign to his friend.
His friend returned his comments with one last gesture she assumed must be obscene given the angry reaction of her warrior. Turning sharply on his heel so that he could stalk off, his friend left him.
"They should be told the truth," his friend growled under his breath.
Ignoring him, her warrior removed the bow from his back. His expression blank, he walked forward to lay it at the feet of the head priest before he bowed low.
The priest smiled in approval. "An offering to our future chief from his elder brother. Thank you, Makah’Alay. Your brother will be touched by your gift. Let you stand as an honorable example to all."
"Honorable my ass," one of the men said off to the side. "But for his brother, he’d be dead."
"Nah, he’d have been cast out years ago." They all laughed while her warrior stood there with nothing showing on his face at all. It was as if it was so common an occurrence that he didn’t even hear them anymore.
"We respect you, priest, but please don’t hold up a defect as an example of anything except why malformed children should be left in the woods to die."
The man came forward and snatched the bow from the ground before he shoved it into Makah’Alay’s hands. "Our future chief doesn’t need your castoff. No one wants the twisted bow of a deformed, retarded idiot."
The fire returned to Makah’Alay’s eyes as he clutched the bow so tightly his knuckles blanched. Even Kateri feared for the other man. It was obvious Makah’Alay wanted to plant his offering in a very uncomfortable place.
Self-preservation must have finally kicked in. Without another word, the man quickly retreated from her warrior.
With his head tilted down and his expression darker and deadlier than before, Makah’Alay watched the others with an unspoken threat that he was plotting their deaths. Even though he was terrifying to behold, there was something intrinsically hot and sexy about that pose. He was like a predator in the wild that was one breath from attacking.
Any wrong move or word …
And someone would be missing a throat.
Finally, her warrior pulled the bow around his body to lie diagonally across his back. He held the string with both hands, then he walked away. Only when his back was to them and none could see his face did he let the hurt show. His eyes betrayed the depth to which they’d wounded him. But even worse was the shame and self-loathing that he didn’t deserve to feel. The tragic despair.
And that brought tears to her own eyes.
How could people be so mean to each other? She’d never understood what it was about some people that they couldn’t allow anyone else to have a moment of dignity. That they had to rob others of any semblance of pride or happiness.
It was so wrong.
She turned at the familiar voice, but she couldn’t place it.
"Teri? Can you hear me?"
It came from a distance. But she didn’t want to go toward it. She wanted to follow the warrior and make him feel better. To tell him that the others were wrong for what they’d done….
She jerked awake so suddenly that she had to grab the couch to keep from hitting the floor. It took a second before her gaze cleared enough to see her cousin Rain Runningwolf standing over her.
Frowning, she tried to get her bearings. "What are you doing here?"
Where was here?
"Sunshine didn’t want you to be alone. She threatened the boys if I didn’t haul ass over to you ASAP. Since I’m rather fond of my boys"-he flashed a devilish grin-"here I be, cuz."
Tall, dark, and irritating, Rain would be gorgeous if A) he wasn’t her cousin and B) he acted like a man and not a five-year-old kid.
She scowled at his short, military hairdo. He used to pride himself on his long raven locks. "When did you cut your hair?"
"A year ago when I decided I didn’t want to work with my family for the rest of my life. You really never check your Facebook page, do you?"
Without pausing he continued with his ADD, "Love them, but distance doth make the heart beat stronger. It also does wonders for my social life, since women tend to look down on men who work for their dads and live over their father’s club."
She pressed her hand to her temple as she tried to follow his train of thought. "I don’t understand. You still live over your father’s club."
"Yes, but now they don’t know it’s my father’s club. I went from being a mooch to interesting with one little job change."
Deep, masculine laughter drew her attention to the man behind Rain.
Her heart stopped as she saw the one who’d rescued her. The one she’d wanted to comfort in her dreams. Only he didn’t look so vulnerable now.
Rather he looked like the fierce warrior who’d been one step from carving the heart out of the man who’d insulted him.
Not sure of his intent where they were concerned, she tried to get up, but Rain stopped her. "Easy. Ren said you were cut pretty badly."
He indicated her warrior watching them. "Intense dude over there, staring a hole through me. I know you haven’t missed his presence. Only Sunshine could be that oblivious."
So his name was Ren and not Makah’Alay…. Much easier to pronounce.
But she still wasn’t ready to let her guard down. Especially not with someone so lethal. "He’s a friend?"
Rain glanced over at him. "God, I hope so. While I’m tough, I’m pretty sure he could kick my ass. Don’t really want to test it. Know what I mean?"
Yes, she did. "Where am I?"
She winced as pain lanced her side and reminded her of how nasty a wound she’d taken. "Shouldn’t I be at a hospital or something? Why am I here? And where is here?"
"Vegas, and this place is protected to keep you safe. Hospitals aren’t."
Her head hurt so badly she could barely follow his rapid-fire weirdness, which left her feeling like she was in the middle of a puzzle with missing pieces.
How had she gotten to Vegas from Alabama?
No, she couldn’t be here. Rain was being stupid or playing a prank of some kind.
"I’m not in Nevada, Rain. I can’t be."
"’Fraid so, hon."
No, no, no. Her head reeled over what he was telling her. It just couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t get halfway across the country without knowing it.
All of a sudden, thunder clapped so loud, it jarred the entire house.
Squeaking in alarm, she shot to her feet, then winced at the pain in her side. "What in the world was that?"
"Bad thunderstorms and flash floods are moving in."
A weird sensation went through her at Rain’s words. It was the kind of chill her grandmother would say came from someone walking on her grave.
She caught the look on Ren’s face. "You felt it too, didn’t you?"
But he didn’t respond. Rather, he turned and left the room.
Rain shrugged at her. "He doesn’t talk much. I haven’t really gotten much more than a single word out of him. Talon said having a conversation with him is like pulling teeth. And here I thought Storm didn’t talk much. I think I’ve found the only person alive who speaks less than my bro. Who knew, right?"
Was it because of the stutter…?
No. That was a dream. Not reality. Just because she saw it in her head, it didn’t mean Ren had a stutter.
Or could it?
Curiosity settled on her back and rode her with spurs. "I’ll be back in a sec." She headed after Ren, wanting some answers.
"Bathroom’s the first door on the left," Rain called after her.
She barely registered that as she headed down the small hallway, looking for Ren.
She found him in a bedroom that had been converted to a gym in the back of his small, ranch-styled house. Probably no more than 1,800 square feet, the house was sparsely furnished and had few decorations. Some old pottery, rugs, but nothing on the walls except for a TV in the living room where she’d awakened and a smaller one here in the gym.
Sitting on a weight bench, Ren was texting someone. He glanced up at her approach and cocked a puzzled brow.
The beauty of his face captivated her. If not for that overwhelming masculinity, he’d be considered pretty. And even though he was sitting down, he commanded attention. Respect.
A lot of fear.
"I-uh … I wanted to talk to you." Although now that she was alone in a room with him, that didn’t seem like such a good idea after all.
Rising to his feet, he turned his phone over and slid it into his pocket, but didn’t say a word.
Kateri swallowed hard. Why did you have to get up? He was absolutely huge in comparison to her. The power of his presence made her want to step back, but she refused to be intimidated by anyone. Even someone who could probably palm a basketball without fully extending his hand.
Gah, he was massive.
She cleared her throat. "I’m just trying to understand everything, okay? You were the one who rescued me, right?"
"Where was I? I mean, where did they take me from my office? How did I get there and how did you get me here? Did we fly or something?" Surely they wouldn’t have allowed a man on an airplane with an unconscious woman and no ID? But nothing else made sense. "We couldn’t have driven this far? Right?"
Ren debated what to tell her. On the one hand, she needed to know if she was to fulfill her duties, but on the other …
Without the Guardian’s return, her part of the ritual wouldn’t really matter. The Ixkib’s duties were to reset the calendar. The First Guardian was the only one who could choose new Guardians and reseal the gates.
If he wasn’t here …
"Are you not going to speak to me?" she asked.
Ren hesitated. He wanted to, but he didn’t trust himself not to do something embarrassing … like stutter. God, how he hated that affliction. While it very rarely occurred now, it had been horrendous in his youth. So much so that he’d been relentlessly ridiculed-which had only aggravated the severity of it.